“No, Donny, these men are nihilists.”

The Roots of Rapturous Nihilism

From The Big Lebowski:

Donny: Are these the Nazis, Walter?

Walter Sobchak:  No, Donny, these men are nihilists, there’s nothing to be afraid of.

Donny: Are they gonna hurt us, Walter?

Walter Sobchak: No, Donny. These men are cowards.

Mark it down.

This Saturday, according to one group of Christian fundamentalists, is it.  Jesus is coming.  Time to close the bank accounts.  Clear the calendar.  Withdraw from society.  Wear a sandwich board that says, “The end is near.”  Run around screaming, “The sky is falling!  The sky is falling!”  Maybe find a tall mountain to climb.

Religiondispatches.org notes that:

“Christian doomsday prognosticator Harold Camping and his sad motley group of followers say the Rapture will take place May 21. This is the day that true believers will be taken up to heaven, while everybody else — Jews, Hindus, Muslims, Buddhists, atheists, agnostics and anyone who supports gay marriage or accepts evolution — will be stuck here on Earth for another six months while war and pestilence rains down on us. Then, on Oct. 21, the world will end.

…Camping’s reasons for why he predicts May 21 will be Judgment Day have something to do with the anniversary of Noah’s Ark, the end of Tribulation, which began 23 years ago (Who knew?) and the mathematical formula 5+10+17=Armageddon.

As one of Camping’s followers explained, the Rapture won’t begin until 6 p.m. Now, I know you’re probably thinking, “Is that in Eastern or Pacific Standard Time?”

Well, because God created time zones — just as he apparently created US international borders — the Rapture will begin at 6 p.m. in each time zone. Also, you’ll know when the Rapture will begin because it will be preceded by an earthquake.

…”starting in the Pacific Rim at around the 6 p.m. local time hour, in each time zone, there will be a great earthquake, such as has never been in the history of the Earth,” he says. The true Christian believers — he hopes he’s one of them — will be “raptured”: They’ll fly upward to heaven. And for the rest?

“It’s just the horror of horror stories,” he says, “and on top of all that, there’s no more salvation at that point. And then the Bible says it will be 153 days later that the entire universe and planet Earth will be destroyed forever”.”

Wow.

Horror of horror stories.  Not exactly how I would describe the biblical narrative.  Is that the hope we have in God?  That he will pour out the horror of horror stories on the majority of the people he created in his image?  That this whole creation of his has really just been a testing ground before he nukes it all?  That those who didn’t pass the test will first be tortured for six months, then be annihilated in a detonation worse than Hiroshima?   I guess that would be quite a horror story.

Many of these well-meaning Christians are trying to follow Jesus.  That is where life has its meaning for them (here’s where we agree!).  And they would look at others, non-believers for instance, as nihilists.  Nihilism, at least of the existential sort, is the idea that life is without objective meaning.  There is no outside, definitive, transcendent reality (to which we have access anyway), which we can point to or build a system of meaning upon.  Nihilism causes one to create one’s own system of meaning or purpose.  So for these enraptured believers, people who don’t believe in God, particularly in their version of God, are simply nihilists with no meaning or purpose in life, and hence not a source of good for the world.

Hold on for a second…

Couldn’t we turn it around and see those who posit no future for this world as the true nihilists?

Couldn’t you say that those who are unwilling to face the problems we face on this planet represent a sort of Christian nihilism?

Couldn’t you say that those who are unwilling to imagine a future in which the human species, regardless of belief systems, will have to learn how to live with each other – that this is a dangerous nihilism which passes itself off as true belief?

“You are entering a world of pain.”

At this point I think it’s appropriate to quote Walter Sobchak of The Big Lebowski: “WHO’S THE F#$&ING NIHILIST HERE! WHAT ARE YOU, A BUNCH OF F#$%ING CRYBABIES?”  (Pardon the french, Walter spent some time in ‘Nam.)

As Mark C. Taylor puts it in his book, After God:  “The very counterculture charged with leading society down the slippery slope of relativism and nihilism is actually a spiritual or even religious phenomenon, [while] the moral zealots who attack relativism in the name of absolutism are actually nihilists who reject the present world for the sake of a future kingdom they believe is coming.”

It seems to me that a full, existential, meaningful Christian faith is one that embraces the incarnational aspect of Christianity.  That God, in taking on flesh, renews his commitment to the creation, rather than acts as an agent to destroy it.  Instead of an apocalyptic eschatology, which sees the world as about to end at any moment, perhaps it is time for an embrace of a more realized eschatology.  An eschatology that seeks not the end of the world but its rebirth, as instituted by Jesus and continued by his disciples, a historical (rather than transhistorical) phenomenon. Those holding this view generally dismiss “end times” theories, believing them to be irrelevant. They hold that what Jesus said and did, and told his disciples to do likewise, is still how we are to engage the world today.  That seems to make sense to me.  Eschatology, you could argue, should be about being engaged in the process of becoming, rather than waiting for external and unknown forces to bring about destruction.

Biblical scholar John Dominic Crossan has put forth a notion of what he calls ‘sapiential eschatology’ to refer to a similar concept: “Apocalyptic eschatology is world-negation stressing imminent divine intervention: we wait for God to act; sapiential eschatology is world-negation emphasizing immediate divine imitation: God waits for us to act.”

Those who are ready to kiss this world goodbye, in my view, are the true nihilists who are abdicating their responsibility as stewards of the creation, as agents of the kingdom.  They have buried their talents and are in danger of being the ones who will ask, “When did we see you tired, or hungry, or naked, or thirsty?”  I’m pretty sure Jesus told us we’d find him by looking around, not by looking up.

Ironically, it seems that Jesus followers who are ready to take responsibility for their own role in the kingdom would find more in common with the atheists, agnostics and humanists who say, “Hey, this world is all we have, let’s make it work.”

May we be those who, regardless of our faith differences, seek to heal and redeem the world rather than participate in its demise.

Indeed, Walter, who’s the bleeping nihilist?

16 Comments

Filed under Culture, Philosophy, Politics, Pub Theology, Relationships, The Text, Theology

16 responses to ““No, Donny, these men are nihilists.”

  1. Mark

    Well darn it! I’m suppose to be in the White Mountains on a backpacking trip… you think he could wait till I get back?
    I remember twenty-some years a book came out with the title something like; 88 reasons, Jesus will return in 1988″ There was a specific 3 or 4 day window they gave Jesus to return to gather his fold. I remember it well because I was working an anatomy department doing dissections for students. My job over that period of time was to take out the brain, spinal cord and as much intact peripheral neverous system as possible of the 16 cadavers. I kept thinking, “what if this crazy dude is right?” Yes, I confess, it crossed my mind….seeing some of these cadavers, the lucky ones, suddenly elevate as if they were doing a yogi impression.

    I agree with you, those who see the world imploding or being destroyed are the nihilists. Yet more irony in this world….

    • Stan VerHeul

      Thanks for the challenge, Brian…well said! Interesting little haunting question, Mark: “what if this crazy dude is right?” I don’t know if it’s true, but Martin Luther is reputed to have said that if he knew Christ would return tomorrow, he would plant a tree. If this “dude” is right, and we are caught in the midst of doing what Bryan suggests, so what? On the other hand, if this “dude” is wrong (not just about the date, but about the whole outlook, about the meaning of life in the reign of God) does he wonder about the meaning of his life? just sayin…

      • Mark

        You would think that one who examines his life would have to ask some pretty hard questions….. Sadly, I’ve never seen those who had concrete-like predictions of Christ’s return to posture themselves in humility. There are countless examples…. But that posture might just help one to migrate toward the reality of the reign of God in the here and now. The last I knew Jesus said the Kingdom of Heaven (God) was at hand…. Yes, but not complete…so mysterious…. Guess we have to partner with Him, here and now….

  2. Well done working “dude” into your comment…

  3. Chris

    The idea that “flying up” could somehow get you to heaven is soooo 1st century. :)

    “Ironically, it seems that Jesus followers who are ready to take responsibility for their own role in the kingdom would find more in common with the atheists, agnostics and humanists who say, ‘Hey, this world is all we have, let’s make it work.’”

    Amen. For the love of God, join us.

    • Mark

      Chris, Are you suggesting Christians are coming to the party late? I wouldn’t disagree. But I wonder if that was always the case…. I’m thinking not…. In some very substantial and worthy ways, at times in history Christians were on the forefront. It’s too easy to see the blemishes from this side of history.

      • Chris

        I believe the part in quotation marks was written by Bryan. :)

        So, I *too* am suggesting that one thing that humanists have not gotten wrong was the importance of helping people in the here and now. Concern for present needs was, however, a part of the Israelite/Jewish community for ages. Was that concern in the early church to the extent that they were in the grip of the Pauline belief of the imminent return of Jesus? I’m not sure. The belief that the world is just about to end and the belief that we are here for the long haul seem to have more in common in terms of their effects on how we relate to others than the belief (common among contemporary Christians) that someday, not in my lifetime, Jesus will return. The former suggest that *I* need to do something; the latter suggests it doesn’t matter so much whether *I* get involved.

        I hope I would never make such a broad (and obviously false) claim as one suggesting that the non-religous have always led the way on social issues, but who knows what happens after that third (or fourth?) PT beer. MLK Jr. and Ghandi were religious and heroic leaders in social justice. Mao Zedong, on the other hand, …

        Perhaps an important distinction can be made here between the humanists and the atheists/agnostics. Humanism comes with a moral agenda; atheism does not. Granted, neither group is waiting for a divine redemption, but there’s nothing in principle preventing a genuine atheist from being selfish, inconsiderate, uncaring, elitist, anti-environmentalist, etc. On the other hand, a genuine humanist acting so is clearly hypocritical.

        It’s worth noting also that some theists consider themselves humanist. As you may recall from our online conversations with the humanist on watershed’s blog, it’s hard to see (and he had a hard time showing) what inconsistency there would be between humanism and theism. The atheism in humanism seems thrown on as a bit of anti-religious bias.

  4. Stan VerHeul

    Despite my distaste for these number-crunching folks, I can’t quite join the frivolous mocking either. Among those anticipating this moment are a different group…some of whom I know. They are the desperate abandoned, living in boxes beneath the freeway underpass, the hopelessly ill with no medical care, the perpetually hungry and the starving, the victims of abusers and oppressors, revisited from generation to generation by the acts of their tormentors. They are not escapists or speculators, guilty only of hoping for deliverance. They have put their trust in Jesus, and literally cry out like the Psalmist of old for God to visit with healing and hope and justice. For them, especially, these date-setters perpetrate a cruel anything-but-harmless hope-dashing, faith-crushing hoax. For those of them who can, they should be rising up to indignantly demand the justice and compassion due them–and we beneath the reign of God should be standing with them and for them. Mea culpa. Lord, have mercy.

    • Rebuke appreciated (and needed), my older and wiser friend.

      Part of the problem is I’m sitting alone listening to something that just seems so out of whack with what the Bible is actually saying, and knowing that this is communicated to a large segment of our local community is a bit frustrating… But you’re right – a sarcastic comment online doesn’t really contribute to the shalom. I’ll just hit delete and hope you were the only one who read it, and hope for forgiveness from any others who did.

      • I agree that there are many who want the desperate, broken situations of the world to change and to end, and we should be among them. Some have no other means but to cry out to God, “Maranatha!” Those aren’t bad means.

        What frustrates me is when I hear preachers telling their congregations comprised of some of these desperate folks to take all their money out of the bank and spend it because Jesus is coming back [in the next month or two]. That does not bring shalom – but sets up these families for real hardships and difficulties down the road.

  5. Stan VerHeul

    My bad, Bryan. I never meant to ‘buke you and I apologize if you or anyone else read it that way. I resonate with your post big time. This prediction, unlike so many before it, is getting a lot of media attention…and I was responding to some of the other responses. It’s that dawg-gone gift He gives—uneasy conscience. For any of us who can still hear our mother’s voice calling after us–”do you really want to be caught with a beer in your hand in the pool hall when Jesus comes again?”–all such predictions raise a host of mixed feelings. (To be fair, my mother played every card in her hand, not just that one.) But that’s not the conscience I refer to. It was while I reflected on what a rapture party at our house might look like that it dawned on me that for some, as I mentioned previously, a daybreak on May 22 means life goes on in the same unbearable way, to a large degree ignored by end-timers and real-timers alike. Which led me to the uneasy feeling that to simply disparage this prediction of deliverance for them would feel as betraying as those who raised their hopes in the first place. I recoil at the same things you do. Even if I (and you) are not here on May 22, I consider this whole thing a massive distraction from not only human duty, but true celebration of the Lord of life among us and sheer joy in the creation. I will not, I guess, have a rapture party on Saturday…but I will party. Now I need to go plant a tree.

  6. This post is awesome. Like, seriously. Anyone who can incorporate The Big Lebowski with the rapture is alright. Great post, glad I came across this blog!

  7. Pingback: Top Rapture Tweets | Bryan Berghoef

  8. matt

    Just found this old post, and yes, you are correct, that is if anyone reads revelations and believes in it, god burns his flock repeatedly !

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